Itar-Tass / The Washington Post / Reuters – 2005-02-13 11:18:48
Russia to Supply Arms to Venezuela
Itar-Tass News Service
MUNICH (February 11, 2005) — Russia supplied and will supply armaments to Venezuela, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on Friday.
“Venezuela is not under international sanctions. One cannot start a war with 100,000 Kalashnikov submachine guns, and shipments of such firearms are not limited,” Ivanov said, referring to concern of the US Department of State about Russian plans to supply firearms to Venezuela.
Russian Arms Sale to Chavez Irks US
Rowan Scarborough / The Washington Times
(February 10, 2005) — The Bush administration has lodged a formal protest with Russia for agreeing to provide the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more than 100,000 AK-47 rifles that US officials believe could be used to aid left-wing uprisings in Latin America.
The administration in December sent a secret letter of protest (formally called a demarche) to the Russian Embassy in Washington, according to senior U.S. officials. The officials say the warning was followed up by concerns expressed directly to the Russian defense and foreign ministers.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
(AP) The protests come at a time when US intelligence reports say that Mr. Chavez is working behind the scenes to prop up left-wing revolutionary movements in the region while retrenching from democratic principles at home.
Mr. Chavez is a vocal supporter of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries, and has encouraged the Iraqi insurgency. US intelligence estimates there are now 15,000 Cuban officials in Venezuela. Caracas claims they are there as part of cultural and professional exchanges, but US officials say they are communist advisers.
Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the US, denied yesterday his country plans to ship weapons for rebel uprisings.
“This is outrageous,” Mr. Alvarez said. “How do you think we can do that? Venezuela is a respectable country. We have never participated in arms traffic at all.”
He said Venezuela is buying the rifles “because of defensive purposes for the country. We support a peaceful and democratic revolution,” Mr. Alvarez said. “We cannot be encouraging any other situation that is not democratic and peaceful.”
Washington, however, is wary of Mr. Chavez, who calls the United States an imperialistic power that has to be confronted.
A State Department official issued a statement to The Washington Times that said, “Venezuela’s plans to purchase various types and large quantities of weapons are extremely troubling. And we believe that Venezuela should consult with its neighbors on such armament acquisitions.
The purchase has raised questions as to their ultimate purposes. Our concern about these weapons purchases are heightened by Venezuela’s tolerance for groups such as FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and ELN [National Liberation Army] and others.”
The FARC and ELN are terrorists groups in neighboring Colombia.
Another US fear on the AK-47 sale is that the weapons they replace within the military will be exported to left-wing rebel movements.
The State Department official declined to say whether the Bush administration had sent Russia a formal protest.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled out Venezuela for criticism at her Jan. 18 Senate confirmation hearing.
“We have a long and good history with Venezuela, long ties,” she said. “I think it’s extremely unfortunate that the Chavez government has not been constructive. And we do have to be vigilant and to demonstrate that we know the difficulties that that government is causing for its neighbors, its close association with Fidel Castro in Cuba.”
US officials said intelligence reports show that Mr. Chavez’s government secretly funneled money to Nicaragua last year to aid mayoral candidates of the Marxist Sandinistas, led by former President Daniel Ortega.
At home, Mr. Chavez is planning to start forming militias outside the professional armed forces, US officials say.
The sources say they fear the Russian-provided AK-47s will be used to arm what may become little more than street gangs assigned the task of enforcing loyalty to Mr. Chavez.
“He’s consolidating a dictatorship,” said a senior US official. “It’s a Cuban-style dictatorship. He’s arming loyalists and setting them lose to intimidate people at the city block level.”
Mr. Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador, said what Washington officials are calling militias are actually new army reserve units.
“It will be under the control of the military,” he said. The new units are not Washington’s only worry. Mr. Chavez’s rhetoric is increasingly anti-US and pro-revolution. He has further nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry and restricted press freedom.
Mr. Chavez is also planning to build an ammunition factory. Again, the US fear is that the ammunition will find its way to leftist revolutionaries.
The arms deal with Russia does not call only for AK-47s. Russia will also supply MiG-29 fighters and attack helicopters. Additionally, US intelligence believes the AK-47 buy may eventually reach 300,000 rifles.
Beyond diplomacy, however, there are not many options for Washington. Mr. Chavez is democratically elected. And his country’s huge oil reserves make it the No. 4 provider to the United States.
“Chavez has shut off a lot of our options. We’re very susceptible to a shut off of oil by Chavez,” the US official said.
Mr. Chavez has talked of establishing an Al Jazeera-style news network in Venezuela that would reach all of Latin American. Some Pentagon officials considers the Qatar-based Arab-language channel a propaganda arm of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
But Mr. Chavez appeared on Al Jazeera in December and called the station “a symbol of courage, principles and dignity.” He added, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.: “It always tells the truth.” He expressed support for the Iraqi insurgents attacking American forces.
Mr. Chavez was elected in 1998 on a theme of a “Bolivarian Revolution” — a message of Marxism and populism aimed at the poor. He survived a coup in 2002 and beat back a recall election last August with 57 percent of the vote.
Mr. Chavez traveled to Tripoli, Libya, last November to receive a humanitarian award from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who has renounced terrorism and given up his weapons of mass destruction.
“Latin America has started witnessing greater interest and involvement in popular and revolutionary movements,” Mr. Chavez said, according to the Associated Press.
Among the dignitaries in the audience was Sandinista leader Mr. Ortega, the former Nicaraguan president who seeks to rule Nicaragua again.
Venezuela Dismisses U.S. Complaints Over Russian Arms
Pascal Fletcher / Reuters
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela Friday dismissed as “impertinence” US criticism of its plans to buy Russian rifles and helicopters and suggested Washington was just sore it was not buying US weapons.
“This is a sovereign action by Venezuela which President (Hugo) Chavez’s government is not willing to discuss,” Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said in a terse statement.
It was the second public rebuttal this week by left-winger Chavez’s government of US fears about the planned Venezuelan arms purchases announced several months ago.
Venezuela, the world’s No. 5 oil exporter, is a major supplier of oil to the United States. But Chavez and President George. W. Bush’s government have been at loggerheads for several years.
Rangel rejected concerns expressed by the State Department Thursday that 100,000 Kalashnikov automatic rifles Venezuela is buying from Russia could fall into the hands of leftist guerrillas Washington considers “terrorists.”
In his statement, Rangel described the US reaction as “another impertinence from Mr. Bush’s government. One has to ask whether the US concern might not stem from the fact that this equipment is being bought in Russia and not in the United States,” he said.
Russian officials said Friday the arms sales did not violate any international laws.
“We have been supplying and will continue to supply Venezuela with assault rifles,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters in Munich in a comment quoted by the Interfax news agency.
OPEC member Venezuela had for decades been a political and military ally of the United States in Latin America. But since former paratrooper Chavez was first elected in 1998, he has irritated Washington by seeking closer trade and military ties with Russia, China and Cuba.
US Wants ‘Transparency’
Chavez last year downgraded Venezuela’s cooperation with Washington by asking the US military to close its liaison offices at Venezuelan armed forces bases. But Venezuela still uses US military hardware like F-16 fighters.
Besides the rifles and helicopters, Venezuela is evaluating Russian MiG-29 fighters as possible replacements for its F-16s.
US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega suggested this week the new rifles could allow Chavez to export small arms to rebel movements, including leftist guerrilla groups in neighboring Colombia.
The US ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, said the 100,000 Russian automatic rifles being purchased were more than the total number of Venezuela’s regular armed forces.
“The sorts of weapons, where they are to go, how they are to be used, all of this is information which would be helpful in terms of reassuring the international community, neighbors and other countries in the region, he added.
“The question for us is transparency … and if that’s a bit impertinent, then I’m sorry,” Brownfield said.
The US administration has been pressing Chavez to end any relationship his government might have with leftist Colombian rebels. Chavez insists he has no ties with them.
The Venezuelan leader says Washington is using the issue of Colombian rebels to try to isolate his government and sabotage his efforts to create an “anti-imperialist” alliance of Latin American nations.
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